During World War II, philosopher Arthur Lovejoy tried to explain the reasons for the international crisis and the totalitarianism in Germany. According to his view, the roots of the trouble could be found in the German Romantic period which ranged approximately between the years 1780 to 1830. During this time certain relatively new ideas took hold and were gradually translated from their original applications to the realm of politics. Key concepts in Lovejoy’s argument raised the possibility that his analysis and insights could be fruitfully extended to issues in economics and the economy. To do this in the following paper, a condensed explanation of Lovejoy’s ideas is given first, and then the analogy with political economy is made.
Arthur Lovejoy identifies three main phrases illustrating the type of thought which tended to become dangerous. Basically, he says that thought was a commitment to the abstract and equivocal term “infinite” which, whatever else it may have meant, meant the “non-limited” or “not-completed.” The concept was expressed in phrases such as “striving into endlessness” (Streben ins Unendlichen), “longing for endlessness” (Sehnsucht nach dem Unendlichen), and “approaching an endless largeness” (Annaeherung zu einer unendlichen Groesse). The word “infinity” or “infinite” could be used equally well in these expressions for “endless” or “endlessness.” This desire for the infinite stands in contrast to traditional European thought, Lovejoy explains:
“…the most prevalent and orthodox tendency had been to think in terms of finites and to regard limitation as an essential element of excellence, at least for mortals. In logic and science, the first thing needful was to have precisely defined [i.e. de finum, having an end or limit] concepts and terms; in a work of art the first essential was that it should have one limited theme, and a clear-cut and readily recognizable ‘form’… in literary style, the supreme merit was the clarity that comes from using words which immediately convey clear and distinct ideas, express exact and therefore limited meanings; and in human character and conduct, the mark of excellence was to observe metes and bounds and to be moderate in all one’s desires, ambitions, and pretensions. The historic process, too, in the Christian tradition…was conceived as a finite thing, having a beginning, a middle and an end” (p. 541).
But the German Romantics were in a state of “revolt” against all these assumptions; their first target was the theory of art favoring an “art of the infinite” (Kunst des Unendlichen) whose perspective quickly passed into other areas of thought (p. 541). To be more specific, Arthur Lovejoy narrows the field to three particular concepts which had bad consequences when mixed with other assumptions and applied in politics. The first concept is the “whole” or “totality” (das Ganze), the second is the idea of “striving” (Streben) and the third is “peculiarity” (Eigentumlichkeit) or particularism in the sense of provincialism and nationalism. The concept of the “whole” or organicism was originally propounded by Immanuel Kant who applied it to a natural organism, like a tree whose parts exist through and for the whole. However, others later applied this to government and politics where it came to mean that the individual was merely a member of the State and his existence was validated or rendered meaningful only through the realization of the ends of the State which is more than the sum of the private ends of all the individuals in it. There was also during this time great emphasis laid on the second concept of “striving,” continuous struggle. Lovejoy explains: “This is the assumption of the primacy, in reality and in value, of process…cumulative becoming, over any consummation — the dislike of finality…” (p. 543). Here, too, the idea was originally applied to the individual, but when blended with the first idea of the Whole it becomes the striving of the individual through the State “which is the embodiment of the Will to Power” (ibid.), and the parts are strictly integrated into the whole – no striving must occur within the State. Lovejoy comments that,
“…the State takes on the role of the insatiable Romantic hero — in which its members can, indeed, vicariously share. It must ever strive for expansion, external power, and yet more power, not as a regrettable necessary means to some final rationally satisfying goal, but because continuous self-assertion, transcending of boundaries, triumph over opposition, is its vocation…” (p. 544).
The third and final concept, “peculiarity,” refers to national differences in tastes, in cultures, ways of thinking or feeling and which were seen not only as natural, but as necessary and supremely desirable. Lovejoy contrasts this with the view that had prevailed for the prior two centuries which was the “assumption that what was most important, most valuable, normal, in men consists in what is the same in all men, and that their actual diversities in opinion and cultures and forms of government are evidences of departures from the norm of human life” (p. 544). This assumption Lovejoy refers to as “Uniformitarianism,” though what connection this may or may not have had with Lyellian geology and Darwinism he does not say here. The sense is that what is rational is uniform, and therefore diversity is not rational but a sign of error, but for the romantics national peculiarities were taken to be distinctions of superiority, differences were to be increased or emphasized. There was, then, in the opinion of these Romantics no universal standard to be applied to human conduct, and affection for its members was to be enlisted for the peculiarities of their own nation or race.
Application to Economics and the Economy
Modern economic thought parallels Lovejoy’s treatment of romantic influence on German thought. There is a sense of the “whole” which submerges the individual, a commitment to endless “striving,” and a flourishing of “peculiarities.”
The Whole of the Economy
The “wholeness” of the economy takes the form of an increasing integration in the society in general and in the economy in particular. This integration is both geographic and structural. Through increasing interdependence in trade, politics, finance, the military and culture generally, a corresponding world-wide integration arises which in its geographic scope and intensity of its uniformity, reduces the kind of choices individuals may prefer and in the loss of economic and social variety and other options: preferences for simpler ways of living, for smaller communities, alternative technologies, etc., are not viable choices under the regnant economic and political regime. Competition and the necessity to survive economically compel conformity to the overall pattern set by others even though it may not be an individual’s absolute preference. Adding insult to injury, the fact of this conformity is then wrongly taken by some to be an endorsement of the trend whose every instance of conformity further reduces choices. The individual can realize his ends only in conformity to a pattern set by powerful forces beyond his control but which he is repeatedly told is good for him (cf. Mishan, pp. 53-77). A robust economic independence is traded for a financial security in a wage-based market. Just as with monarchies which ostensibly tried to humanize politics by linking it to the family but instead ended by politicizing the family, so also in the present form of the market economy, the family is often commercialized by its involuntary dependency on wages alone. Typically, the father has been compelled to perform nearly any work to be able to pay the rent. A bachelor, however, may well have other ideas and insist on more meaningful work, which is undoubtedly a major reason companies have preferred married to single men. Richard Weaver gives the examples of Sherwood Anderson who left the Ohio paint factory and George Santayana who left his Harvard classroom at hearing the voice of spring as examples of young men looking for more than a paycheck. It is the function of the modern capitalistic society, says Weaver, to prevent man from breaking through to levels of deeper significance (Ideas Have Consequences, p. 106). Commercialization of the father was followed by targeting children as consumers, mostly through television advertisements, and so bringing them into the market early as consumers. More recently the advent of feminism dissolves family structure in the interests of both ideology and materialism, absorbing family members into the market still further. Production and technology are significantly influenced by large multi-national corporations and government policy, and these along with advertising and marketing techniques significantly influence patterns of consumption. It is difficult to see the full force of “consumer sovereignty” in this context, especially when compared to the alternative economy with a wide distribution of property and decentralized economic and political power. The form of the economy within a nation is changed by the needs of the multinational corporations, and this pattern spreads around the world. Man himself is absorbed into the production process, instrumentalized for the alleged needs of modern medicine, resulting in what has long been predicted by such writers as, for example, C.S. Lewis in his Abolition of Man. (Abortion in the name of fetal tissue and stem cell research vindicates his concern.) Work and consumption were thus increasingly submitted to abstract market forces that catered to the individual more than to the family, for it was in the breakdown of the family that economic energy, like atomic power, released its energy. Tight integration into a market economy occurred at the expense of meaningful work and liberty of the family and the individual. The integration is also ideological. One of the most obvious casualties of this world-wide economic integration is loss of traditional national loyalties. Nationalism is no longer the major source of divisiveness in the world, especially in the West. The boundaries of conflict are divided up differently. Groups within a country oppose other groups, and unity among like-minded groups crosses national boundaries. American ideologues on the left share the same agenda with their leftist ideologues in other Western countries, and the same can be said for the ideologues of the right. Indeed, there is often little difference in so far as members of both these mainstream conventional categories are largely committed to modern technology, economic growth, and the dissolution of traditional society (the abolition of marriage, the support of the feminist/homosexist continuum, more expansive or intrusive government control, etc.). Serious deviation from this ideological norm can sometimes be met with physical violence — as in the case of the Branch Davidians, for example. President Clinton’s willingness to work for communists in China and Cuba symbolizes this trend. It is as though the tyranny of the State had become worldwide.
The Striving of Economics
There is a double meaning to the conventional economist’s use of the phrase the “struggle against scarcity.” With the plain sense that many things we need or may legitimately want are not freely available from nature and so require human effort to supply, and that this is an ongoing or daily affair and is in that sense open-ended or endless, there is no quarrel. But in the sense that “the struggle against scarcity” assumes man’s desires are endless and should be uncritically catered to, that there is a need for endless economic growth and social change in order to fulfill these desires and this process is justified in itself, is objectionable. The perpetual struggle which economists picture is against the ever-present danger of scarcity understood in this second sense. Earlier in the last century, Frederick Bastiat gave us an example of this latter usage which is commonplace in economic thought today. He claimed man is to strive for perfectibility, fighting against ignorance and poverty which are inseparably linked with man’s wants according to God’s plan: “…we must presume, since our desires are without limit, that our means of satisfying them are likewise without limit” (Economic Harmonies, p. 46). “Man has wants,” says Bastiat, “that know no limits; he experiences desires that are insatiable” (Economic Harmonies, p. 309) and elsewhere he writes, “God Himself decreed it [perfectibility or material and intellectual progress] in giving us ever increasing wants and perfectible faculties” (Economic Harmonies, p. 537). We have, then, a divinely sanctioned program of limitless change as man pursues his endless and insatiable desires. Though modern economists drop the rhetoric of divine sanction, they proceed with the same program. The capitalistic entrepreneur, or perhaps the hypostatized market itself, is our romantic hero struggling to free us from the chains of material limits and raise us to new heights of well-being. It is a never-ending battle for expansion of power over nature, not for some final goal but because the process of struggle, the flexing of human will, is taken to be intrinsically valuable. As John Chamberlain writes, the entrepreneur is “…the pioneer on any frontier, new or old, …the unharnessed man free to walk at will over the horizon” (p. x). He works under an imperative of efficiency, an “imperative” needed to stave off the tribulations of scarcity.
Peculiarity in the Economy
Applying the concept of “peculiarity” is more difficult. The German word is “Eigentumlichkeit,” which can be translated as the “quality of the domain of the self,” referring to those features which distinguish one individual from another, hence “peculiarity.” National characteristics of race, culture, and customs, are easily identified, and in the past virulent nationalists have gloried in them. In the modern economy the concept can be applied in more than one way. Its reference to the eccentricities of individuals was forcibly indicated by Rousseau, its prophet, who claimed in his Confessions: “I am different from all other men I have seen. If I am not better at least I am different.” Today we celebrate our individualism in songs like, “I’ve Gotta Be Me” as well as in films and print media so numerous that giving examples would be tedious. It continues to be seen most prominently in the nation’s youth who have always been at once the victims and the promoters of this eccentricity which is both individual and collective. It is individual insofar as it reflects personal choice or character, but it’s collective insofar as it is the younger generation’s effort to distinguish itself from its immediate forebears by adopting sometimes outrageous practices or exhibitions: spiked hair, half-shaven heads, and body-piercing are obvious current examples. It might be added that this effort at peculiarity is aided and abetted, some would say directly driven, by modern science and technology which creates such social and economic changes that the generations are necessarily estranged from one another. The same science and technology which integrate the economy also disintegrate the solidarity and closeness that should exist between generations. However, there are also eccentricities of taste which are financed by excessive material wealth. The ancient Romans could eat flamingo tongues and exotic wines, then vomit under the tables only to start all over again. Roepke refers to Marie Antoinette and her circle of friends at Trianon indulging their “saccharine conception” of shepherdesses: as yet another “diversion for a blasé court society and nobility,” notions far removed from the realities of life (Social Crisis, p. 203). Today, more people than ever before can indulge their taste for peripheral consumer goods or for the peripheral aspects of goods rather than focusing only on their essential features, for their secondary rather than their primary purposes: a car’s stereo system, for example, or its color is as important as its purpose in transportation; or, we can purchase recreational trucks, not necessary for use as a truck, but as a fashion statement; we can indulge our taste for the multiplicity of tread designs in sport shoes; or, we can enjoy the taste of ostrich meat (and who knows, flamingo tongues and public regurgitation may come back in fashion). The increasing satisfaction of minutia and the frivolous is a deflection from moral purpose and undermines rather than increases human happiness. Lastly, just as ideology has diminished the role of nationalism, so also it has come to function as the new badge of social identity and acceptability or solidarity as is commonly called “Political Correctness” (PC). Where businesses in the past used to identify their product with the American flag, they now more frequently promote the baubles of PC: gender and racial diversity and sexual preference, which must be reflected in the simplest business commercials and advertisements. Instead of boasting that the Aryan race is superior, the new “romanticism” boasts of the superiority of its egalitarian political agenda. While all races, peoples and individuals are assumed equal in the ideology, the leftist ideology itself is assumed to be superior to and at war with all who differ. And the ironic result is that it also leads to totalitarian governments: e.g., current tendencies in the U.S. government.
Roepke understood the revolt against the finite as a substitution of the spiritual and interior life for the external and the worldly. The eighteenth century was a time in which, says Roepke, no one was interested in gaining the world at the expense of his soul and that the “always-wanting-more attitude was considered an abomination”; people were mainly concerned “with the soul and what might harm or profit it” (Social Crisis, p. 65). The development of the nineteenth century destroyed this generally humane view: “While this time the world was gained, the soul suffered considerable damage in the process. The abrupt change from the concerns of the spirit to material affairs was bound to result in the withering of the soul. By abandoning humanism one lost the capacity for making man the measure of things and thus finally lost every kind of orientation. Life becomes dehumanized and man becomes the plaything of unhuman, pitiless forces” (Social Crisis, p. 67). When he speaks of Friedrich List, Roepke says that, “Men were forgetting the things of the spirit and turning to externals…” and the classical and romantic periods were coming to an end and men were more interested in “the lusty participation in political and economic affairs and the glorification of power…” (Social Crisis, p. 59). But for Roepke the proper social, moral, and economic order begins with the interior life and the soul, and the right ordering of the will, and then manifests itself externally, so far as economics is concerned, in household production and consumption, then production outside the home, then local exchange, and lastly national and international exchange. The object of a humane economy is to place economic action in its proper level of importance in life but in such a way that those aspects of human endeavor which are more important than the economic are facilitated and helped by economic action rather than replaced or hindered by it. Broadly speaking, the freedom and incentives a humane economy provides is intended to help people exercise their will on behalf of virtue. Roepke’s program for the “will to independence” (Moral Foundations, pp. 156, 157) requires a particular economic form as discussed in the last issue, one based on property rather than wages and salaries. This approach is diametrically opposed to the present market system and the economic rhetoric sustaining it, where the motto might well be “automatic goodness,” where individually “vicious” acts automatically lead to virtuous results in a well designed market system. There are two aspects to Roepke’s recipe for economic independence: one is the will and the other is nearness to necessity. In the first aspect, to do good, one must will what is good in a personal effort and not assume that a system, whether economic or governmental, will automatically produce something good. In the second, nearness to necessity disciplines the will positively while the exact degree and form of effort needed exist in the context of freedom rooted in productive property ownership, especially land. In Roepke’s view, the healthy household produces some of its own necessities, such as growing some of its own food, but more broadly he equates this to nearness to nature and her moods. Proximity to necessity (and nature) gives the true form of economic values and cultivates a sense of the real value of things, allows for greater possibilities of genuine satisfaction – that is, the attainment of a level of material production and consumption which says “it is enough.” But Roepke’s recipe also means that families are not as tightly integrated into the system of world-wide exchange and this increases their options in important ways. The independent business owner, the single proprietor, has a greater opportunity to promote the values he believes in. The wage-earner working for the corporation must participate in “sensitivity” training sessions promoting homosexuality, or which contributes to abortion, engages in any number of objectional practices which he has little influence over. For the proletarian the choice is always conform or lose your job; he must often prostitute himself to support himself and his family. The independent proprietor, of course, can promote these same disvalues, but if he chooses to do so, it is only because he wants to, not because he is economically compelled to. And if something is sufficiently important to a man, he can quit his job knowing that he can at least meet his minimal requirements on his own resources. It’s not difficult to see that the collective effect of many families having this kind of power is socially significant.
The “romantic” revolt against the finite in politics is reflected in economics and economy. The finite has form, purpose and limitation, and this is objectionable to the modern mind which makes the elimination of limits its chief purpose so its agenda becomes a program of continuous social and moral destruction. Modern pro-market thought and the modern capitalistic economy are a part of this revolt. Revolt against the finite is a revolt against the human person, who is finite and requires measure and moderation conforming to his nature. In the economy he requires a measure of independence from the market as well as from government so that his individual ends can be partly realized outside of the world-wide market system. The independent property owner represents the economic form of that finiteness which at once allows scope for the will and at the same time limits and disciplines it. The erosion of property based independence is necessary if the modern agenda of world-wide uniformity and integration is to be attained. The effort to replace the voluntary, independent property owner who must “will” the goodness he achieves with a system which generates good results automatically, without the effort of the will, is the central method of modern economics in its revolt against the finite.
Books referenced in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
[This essay appeared in The Legacy of Wilhelm Roepke: Essays in Political Economy by Ralph Ancil. Copyright held by the Wilhelm Roepke Institute and reprinted by permission. Read the series introductory essay here.]
References and Notes:
Frederick Bastiat, Economic Harmonies, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., Princeton, New Jersey, 1964. Bastiat tries to distinguish between being “without limit” and being “infinite” but his intellectual circumlocutions cast doubt on the meaningfulness and credibility of his distinction.
John Chamberlain, The Enterprising Americans, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1963.
Arthur Lovejoy, “Meaning of Romanticism for the Historian of Ideas,” in the Journal of the History Ideas, II, No. 3 (June, 1941) 260-64, 270-278 as reprinted in Raymond Stearns, Pageant of Europe, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York, 1961, pp. 540-545.
E. J. Mishan, Economic Myths and the Mythology of Economics, Humanities Press International, Inc., Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1986.
Wilhelm Roepke, The Social Crisis of Our Time, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1992.
Wilhelm Roepke, Moral Foundations of Civil Society, Transaction Publisher, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1996. Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1948.